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Why the family of Emmett Till want authorities to serve a 67-year-old arrest warrant


The lynching of Emmett Till in 1955 inspired civil rights protests across the country. The pretext for his notorious murder was that the 14-year-old made improper advances toward a white woman in the Jim Crow South. That woman later admitted he never touched her. We now know that police issued an arrest warrant for her role in the kidnapping but never arrested her. Well, that warrant from 1955 was recently found in a Mississippi courthouse basement. And relatives of Emmett Till are calling for police to serve the warrant and charge Carolyn Bryant Donham with a crime.

Jaribu Hill represents the family of Emmett Till. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JARIBU HILL: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Will you begin by explaining how this document, 67 years after it was first issued, was unearthed?

HILL: Yes. A team of five people, including family members, went to the basement. The access was given by the circuit clerk Elmer (ph) Stockstill - allowed us to have access to the courthouse where the documents were found. We considered it to be somewhat miraculous since all of the officials had been telling us that if there was a warrant, they didn't know of its present existence.

SHAPIRO: It was just found in a box in the basement. I mean...

HILL: Found in a box in a basement labeled 1955. And what was so interesting is that everything was found at the same time - the warrant, the affidavit of arrest and also the capias was found as well. So all of the documents that you would need in order to have served this woman in 1955 were present and available in that box.

SHAPIRO: Carolyn Bryant Donham is close to 90 years old now. Do you factor her age in at all when you consider what the family wants to see happen next?

HILL: OK, I do not. I'm very respectful of the fact that people can live longer and have. But no, I don't factor it in because Emmett Till is laying in his grave at 14 years old. Mamie Till died before she got a chance to see justice for his lynching. For 67 years, Carolyn Donham Bryant (ph) has been allowed to escape even real interrogation, let alone prosecution.

SHAPIRO: And so what would you like to see happen? What would the family like to see right now?

HILL: We want to see that warrant served on Carolyn Bryant. We also want her culpability to be the subject of an actual grand jury hearing. And we believe through addressing her culpability, that, at the very least, there will be a full-fledged investigation. What we hope is that there will be a trial where she is charged with a kidnapping that led to murder.

SHAPIRO: This is your hope. Have you had conversations with prosecutors? What are U.S. attorneys telling you?

HILL: Well, we've had conversations with the district attorney in the Fourth District. He is solidly of the opinion that there is no new evidence, there is no cause to explore these questions and these demands that we're raising. The Department of Justice, as you know, closed the case once again on December 6 of this past year, citing that there was no new information, no new evidence.

SHAPIRO: And so if the district attorney is not eager to prosecute and the Justice Department says the case is closed, are you at a legal dead end here?

HILL: No, we don't believe so. We believe that because there are laws on the books that speak to expiration of a warrant and the warrant does not expire, we believe that it is necessary to get before the proper judicial body. And so because of that, we're going to press forward. We are not going to stop until we force the issue of accountability.

SHAPIRO: Accountability can take many forms. Why is it important to you to see a criminal trial and a conviction?

HILL: It's important for us to see that because what we're seeing here is a longstanding double standard rooted in white supremacy and the white woman pedestal theory. And now, in the 21st century, we're challenging law enforcement and elected officials in particular to do their duties to see that justice is done and to strip away the final remnants of the double standard that still prevails to this day.

SHAPIRO: Jaribu Hill is an attorney for the family of Emmett Till. Thank you for talking with us.

HILL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Ayen Bior
Ayen Deng Bior is a producer at NPR's flagship evening news program, All Things Considered. She helps shape the sound of the daily shows by contributing story ideas, writing scripts and cutting tape. Her work at NPR has taken her to Warsaw, Poland, where she heard from refugees displaced by the war in Ukraine. She has spoken to people in Saint-Louis, Senegal, who are grappling with rising seas. Before NPR, Bior wore many hats at the Voice of America's English to Africa service where she worked in radio, television and digital. Bior began her career reporting on the revolution in Sudan, the developing state of affairs in South Sudan and the experiences of women behind the headlines in both countries. In her spare time, Bior loves to kayak, read and bird watch.